Experience, ethics key to GOP races for Court of Criminal Appeals

In two Republican primary races for the state’s highest criminal court, a challenger wants to make ethics the centerpiece of his bid to unseat Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, and three candidates are vying for an open seat in a clash that pits experience against conservative support.

Early voting for the Court of Criminal Appeals primary races ends Friday, and the election is Tuesday.

In the race for presiding judge, David Bridges — a member of the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1997 — said he wants to “restore integrity to the office” and criticized Keller for what he calls a series of ethical missteps, including paying a $25,000 Texas Ethics Commission fine in 2013 for not disclosing $3.8 million in property and income on required financial disclosure statements and for her role in declining an appeal from death row inmate Michael Richard in 2007 because it came after 5 p.m. Richard was executed later that night.

“I believe in the death penalty, but everyone deserves their day in court. You just don’t close the court on a time clock. Our court recently stayed up till 1 a.m. on a voter ballot case,” Bridges said.

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Keller said that Bridges was dredging up old issues that have been settled — the financial statements were an “oversight” that she corrected, and an ethics reprimand over the Richard’s execution was overturned on appeal. Voters already knew about the issues being raised by Bridges when they elected her to a fourth six-year term to the court in 2012, she said.

“I am really trying to stress my own experience, my qualifications,” Keller said. “I think this election is about so much more, and after 23 years on this court, I have voted on most of the cases that established the jurisprudence of Texas and criminal law, so I know what the law is.”

Both candidates for presiding judge, the administrative leader of the nine-judge court, tout their experience on the bench and off.

Bridges said he has written more than 2,000 opinions on the appeals court serving the six counties around Dallas. He also has handled attorney discipline cases for the State Bar of Texas and worked both sides of the bar as a defense lawyer and assistant district attorney.

He also is board certified as a specialist in criminal law and criminal appellate law and has been a delegate to every Texas GOP convention since 1992.

Keller said she wants to keep the court running smoothly and ensure the success of recent innovations, including online video of oral arguments and the electronic filings of briefs.

Keller also hopes to continue work designed to improve the criminal justice system as chairwoman of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and as a board member of Council of State Governments Justice Center and member of the Judicial Advisory Council to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Maria Jackson, a state district judge in Houston, in the November election.

Place 8

Three Republicans are vying to replace GOP Judge Elsa Alcala, who is retiring:

• Jay Brandon said he has 30 years of experience with appeals in criminal cases, mostly as a prosecutor in the appellate section of the Bexar County district attorney’s office, but also as a defense lawyer from 1990 to 2011 and as a staff lawyer for two appellate courts, including the court he’s running for.

“I have been on both sides and would approach each case without particular bias for one side or the other,” Brandon said. “I have so much experience with that court and have done the same jobs these judges do.”

The author of 18 mystery and suspense novels, Brandon also spent 11 years on a panel that advised the Court of Criminal Appeals on changes to rules of evidence and appellate procedure. He’s also board certified as an expert in criminal appellate law and family law.

• Michelle Slaughter said she is a constitutional conservative whose judicial philosophy mirrors U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and she touts endorsements from many of the state’s most conservative groups, including Texas Right to Life, Empower Texans, the Texas Home School Coalition and Texas Values.

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Slaughter said President Barack Obama’s election inspired her to become active in Republican Party groups, and she is serving her second term as a state district judge in Galveston County after ousting a longtime Democrat in 2012, leaving a law firm she had started to challenge a judge she had accused of failing to promptly address cases.

“I transformed that court in my first two years on the bench to the most efficient court with the lowest backlog” of cases in Galveston County, she said.

• Dib Waldrip said he has been involved in the criminal justice system for more than 30 years, beginning as a New Braunfels police officer and continuing as a briefing attorney for two state courts of appeal, an assistant district attorney and Comal County’s elected district attorney from 1997 to 2007.

He has been a state district judge in Comal County for the past 12 years, is board certified as a specialist in criminal law, helped develop Comal County’s indigent defense system and said he handled more than 100 criminal appeals as a prosecutor.

“I’ve got the length of service, and also the breadth of service, in criminal justice,” Waldrip said. “I’ve worked to improve the system.”

The winner of the GOP primary faces no Democratic opponent in November.

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